Saturday, September 29, 2012

Weekend Post - Women in science (not in Iran)

I saw a news item on the BBC web site last week that was depressing. I should have known better, the world is over-supplied with depression these days, what with religious extremists taking offense at the slightest of things and thinking that gives them the right to riot, burn down buildings and kill ambassadors. I don’t understand it, I spend most of my life offended by one form of stupidity or another, but I’ve never been tempted to create mayhem, commit arson or murder as a result.

The news item came from Iran, where it has recently been decided that young women may no longer study certain subjects at university. Included in these presumably dangerous subjects are English literature, archaeology and nuclear physics. I'm tempted to launch into a major rant about the idiocy of theocracies doing these things, how when medieval superstitions influence public policy then savagery returns but this is meant to be about science, not fundamentalist-bashing.

The very first thing I thought of when reading the story from Iran, after I overcame the temptation to swear, was to think that it's a good job Marie Curie and Lise Meitner weren't born in Iran today. If they had been, the world would have been a much poorer place.

I don't have any daughters, just sons, but I feel strongly that every girl should learn about Curie and Meitner, perhaps the greatest female physicists in history.

Marie Curie c/o Wikipedia
Marie Curie's achievements are legendary.

She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in science. The only woman to ever win two Nobel Prizes in science. The only person, male or female, to have won two Nobel Prizes in different sciences, Chemistry and Physics.

She discovered two new chemical elements, invented the term "radioactivity", she was the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne, France's most prestigious university. She has a chemical element named after her along with many institutions and museums, even a unit of radioactivity is named after her.

She is surely a fitting hero for any girl wondering where life will take her.

It's Lise Meitner's bad luck to be in Curie's shadow. She was another nuclear physicist, the co-discoverer of nuclear fission.

Lise Meitner c/o Wikipedia
Shamefully she was discriminated against because of her gender and also because being Jewish in Germany in the 1930s was perilous. Luckily she was able to escape to Sweden and she avoided the fate of many other Jewish scientists. She was also overlooked when her research partner Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize for the work she had done alongside him. Her treatment was an embarrassment to the scientific community.

I think the examples of Curie and Meitner show that excluding women from science is as illogical as excluding men from the kitchen. Curie and Meitner are perfect illustrations that women are just as capable as men to achieve in science.

The prejudice against women in science is sometimes explained, by those with the prejudice, by the fact that women are somehow genetically different to men, not possessing the qualities that men have that allow them to understand science. Women, they say, are different. However, the voice of reason says, “So what?”

Let's imagine for a moment that perhaps men ARE, on average, naturally better than women at science, just as men are, on average, taller than women. But are ALL men taller than ALL women? Of course not, it's just an average difference. I'm fairly tall but I've met women taller than me. I've always been pretty good at science but some of my science professors were women, clearly more qualified than I was. Just because there’s a difference in averages, that doesn’t mean there’s a difference in individuals. It’s as logical to deny women the right to study physics, as it is to say that women can’t vote, drive or run for political office. OK, forgive me, there ARE countries that still do that, stuck as they are in the Dark Ages.

The science of gender difference is fascinating. There is some evidence that there are minor differences between men and women, apart from the obvious (and entertaining) physical ones but it’s unclear whether these are due to genetic differences or just the way people are raised. There really is no conclusive evidence that there are fundamental psychological differences between men and women and the way they think. However the critical point is that even if some evidence was found it would only be between the average scores of men and women. It would not be able to predict how an individual boy or girl would develop, what skills they would possess or how they would behave.

Like so many other areas of life, it’s surely time to put medieval superstitions about the nature of men and women behind us and embrace science, knowledge and those often challenging things, facts.

And if you have daughters, please tell them about Marie Curie and Lise Meitner. They’ll thank you for it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The "Doctor" will see you shortly. For P5,500.

The papers all have advertisements for a forthcoming seminar by Dr John Demartini, who they claim is a "Human Behavioural Specialist, Educator and Author". His achievements include being "featured in various national and international film documentaries and movies including The Secret, The Opus, The Compass, The Riches and Oh My God".

The Secret? That nonsensical, morally dubious claptrap?

The advert claims that he can "awaken your entrepreneurial spirit" etc etc etc blah blah blah.

You might be wondering how he is a "Doctor"? His first degree was in Biology but that's certainly where the science ends. His Facebook profile says that he "went on to study Chiropractic at the Texas Chiropractic College where he graduated with honors and his Doctorate in 1982".

Chiropractic? He's a chiropractor?

Chiropractic is pseudoscience. It's bogus. At best it doesn't work, at worst it harms people. And this qualifies him to teach us how to improve our lives? Why should we take advice (for P5,500) from a Doctor of Pseudoscience?

Unfortunately he's another of the many "educators" who break one of my cardinal rules. Please don't mention quantum physics unless you really know what you're talking about. If you know anything about physics see how long you can get through this video of Demartini discussing quantum physics without laughing, choking or swearing.

His knowledge of the subject seems similar to that of Deepak Chopra, someone else who also knows nothing about it. The bizarre thing is that he reminds me of someone else. Reading though his profile on his web site I found the following:
"Dr John Demartini is one of the greatest minds and illuminating teachers on the planet" (Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret)
"Dr. Demartini’s trademarked Demartini Method®, which is the result of 39 years of cross-disciplinary research and study into human behavior, works with perceptions and assists people to gain a more balanced perspective and enables them to dissolve their emotional charges, challenges or issues within a matter of hours."
"Dr. Demartini has donated his time to work with prisoners, wardens and police service personnel around the world. His focus with wardens and police has been to assist them in managing the stress and the emotions of their positions, understand human behavior and driving motives, stay inspired by what they do and grow their self worth."
"Dr. Demartini immersed himself in books covering subjects from cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, physics, metaphysics, theology, mythology, philosophy, anthropology, economics, sociology, psychology until eventually his insatiable interest took him through the studies of over 280 different academic disciplines."
"At the age of 18 he read a book by the philosopher Wilheim Leibniz titled ‘Discourse on Metaphysics’ [which] inspired Dr. Demartini to set out on a quest to find a way of helping himself and others discover and experience this underlying divine or implicate order that Leibniz spoke of. Today, we now know that Dr. Demartini did master a way which is called the Demartini Method."
Let me think. Who does this nauseating hero-worship remind me of?

Of course you're welcome to drop P5,500 per person to attend this one-day workshop if you wish. It's your money. Or perhaps your company's. Just don't expect miracles. Just expect to be P5,500 poorer.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Weekend Post - The organic food movement is bogus

Let me be blunt. The “organic” food movement is largely bogus.

To understand organic food you have to play with words a bit. All foods are organic, they’ve all come from some other form of life, whether animal or vegetable. Organic foods are no more “organic” than conventionally produced foods. So-called organic food is actually just conventional food that’s been grown, processed and delivered according to certain agreed standards. It’s similar to the production of Halaal meat. Fundamentally there’s no noticeable difference between an organic potato and a conventional one, just like there’s no observable difference between a Halaal chicken burger and a conventional one, it’s just the production method that’s different.

Organic foods are produced largely without modern farming products like pesticides, veterinary products like antibiotics and modern fertilizers. That’s the main reason why organic foods are so expensive. In a store I visited recently they offered conventional spaghetti and organic spaghetti for exactly three times the price. Given that there’s no noticeable difference in taste, texture or quality I happily bought the cheaper version and will continue to do so.

Perhaps the biggest argument for organic food, and the reason that many people are willing to spend three times as much for certain items is that they think it’s somehow healthier. The inconvenient truth for the followers of the organic movement is that there appears to be no evidence for this whatsoever. None.

In fact some of the fertilizers used in organic farming are really rather scary. Although the chemicals often used are “natural” that doesn’t mean they don’t cause cancer, Parkinson’s disease or food-poisoning. Unfortunately the organic food movement has also resurrected an old farming practice that industry had begun to eradicate: using excrement as a fertiliser.

While over two-thirds (pdf document) of people who buy organic food say they do so for the health benefits there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that this is mistaken. Not only is there no evidence that they are healthier, there IS growing evidence that they’re not. They’re not actually worse for your health, they just don’t seem to offer any actual health benefit either.

For instance a report by scientists at Stanford School of Medicine and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine just a few days ago concluded, after reviewing “17 studies in humans and 223 studies of nutrient and contaminant levels in foods” that the “published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”

The studies they included suggested, amongst other things, that there was no difference in the levels of nutrients between organic and conventional food, there were no difference in the risk of exposure to pesticides or bacteria and there was no difference in the levels of allergies people experienced. In short, there’s no evidence that organic food actually offers anything to its consumers.

Needless to say you can expect a bit of a backlash from the organic food industry. Like the so-called “alternative” medicine industry you shouldn’t see organic food as an idealistic community of hippies growing a few things in some prehistoric paradise. Both “alternative” medicine and organic food are parts of massive industries. While they sound small and unorthodox they are both produced in almost exactly the same way as any other item, just without certain chemicals. Admittedly alternative medicines are usually cheap to produce but that’s because they don’t actually contain any ingredients or because they aren’t produced to the same exacting standards as real medicines. Organic foods on the other hand are produced incredibly inefficiently which is the main reason they cost so much.

The organic industry is going to do its best to persuade us that their products are, in fact, wonderful despite the complete lack of evidence. They’ll say they’re healthier which we know they’re not. They’ll claim they safer, which they’re also not. They’ll claim that they have a smaller impact on the environment when clearly they don’t, being highly inefficient to produce.

If health is your concern, you can save a lot of money by buying conventionally produced food and use the savings to join your local gym instead.

They might even claim that they’re tastier but all I can offer is my personal experience. They’re not. The only thing they have left is an appeal to our sense of magic. Like homeopathy and other bogus ideas all they have left is a feeling that they’re good. If that’s enough for you then I wish you good luck. Just don’t ask me to lend you money when you’ve spent it all on food three times more expensive than it needs to be and is covered in traces of poo.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Weekend Post - Natural?

If something is “natural” does that mean it’s good? If something is unnatural does that make it bad?

Of course many “natural” products are perfectly wonderful. Oxygen is natural. Water is natural. Vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol, is natural. But all of these things, if taken to excess, will kill you. Arsenic, cyanides and many bacteria are perfectly natural but they will also kill you stone dead. Lions and hippos are natural, just like mosquitos. Falling off a cliff is natural.

Anti-retroviral drugs, plastics and semiconductors are all “unnatural”, none of them occur “naturally”, but all of them have improved the quality of our lives immeasurably. Hospital operating theatres, telephone exchanges and refrigerators are all completely unnatural. iPads, cellphones and cars aren’t natural either but try taking any of these things away from me and I’ll show you a perfectly natural reaction.

It’s not as simple as natural is good, unnatural is bad. That’s the “naturalistic fallacy”, the idea that natural products are somehow better for you than unnatural ones. This fallacy is everywhere. Take sugar for example. Sugar is sugar, wherever it comes from. C6H12O6. However there is a belief, held by almost everybody in the world, that somehow brown sugar is better for you than white, refined sugar. But there’s no significant difference at all between them. They’re both just sugar, the only difference is the process by which they are produced. White sugar is produced by taking natural sugar cane and removing molasses from it. Here’s the key point. Brown sugar is NOT the original product that preceeded the removal of the molasses. In fact more often than not it’s actually white sugar that has then had the molasses added back to it. Brown sugar has actually been processed even more than white sugar.

Practically, chemically and, above all, nutritionally, brown and white sugar are completely equal. They’ve both as bad as each other. They will both make you as fat as each other, they’ll both rot your teeth as much as the other.

Several people have contacted me recently asking me about a product called Moringa. They’ve all seen claims made about it, in particular that it can help them lose weight. Their skeptical brain cells have been, well, skeptical. Can one single product be so miraculous?

The starting point is that the Moringa plant, Moringa Oleifera, really is genuinely quite remarkable. The leaves in particular are remarkable nutritious, full of vitamins and minerals and can even boost the milk production or nursing mothers. It’s an excellent crop in countries plagued by drought and famine.

But, and it’s an important “but”, that doesn’t make it miraculous. It doesn’t mean that just because it’s leaves are pumped full of beta-carotene, protein, potassium and a host of vitamins that it can cure cancer, make you shed weight or win a Nobel Peace Prize.

This is actually one occasion when a fair amount of research has been done. On the US National Institute of Health research web site I found 305 (update, now 307) different research papers into the properties, effects and usefulness of Moringa. The vast majority of the results were what scientists describe as “inconclusive”. That’s a polite way scientists have of saying there’s no evidence either way. No evidence at all. Many of the experiments were on rats or done in test tubes, others were “sociological”, seeing how many people used Moringa. One particularly interesting one looked at the use of various “herbal” concoctions used by people in Zimbabwe taking anti-retroviral drugs to help minimize their side effects. Some appear to have a minor effect but unfortunately for the Moringa industry, Moringa wasn’t one of them.

As far as the weight loss claim is concerned, that again appears to have nothing more than “inconclusive evidence” on it’s side. So no evidence at all then. The conclusion seems to be simple. Moringa doesn’t make you thinner and it doesn’t make you fatter either.

I was also asked recently about the use of aluminium in anti-perspirants. Was aluminium, the most abundant metal in the planet’s crust, harmful? In particular was it’s use in anti-perspirants a risk to the people that use it? Again it’s one of the “inconclusive evidence” situations. There’s no evidence it harms people but there’s also no evidence that it doesn’t. It’s not like alcohol, tobacco or shooting yourself in the head, all of which are know to kill a large proportion of people who indulge in them. It’s still no more than speculation without any evidence.

As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Almost all occupants of the natural remedy worls are very fond of making extraordinary claims. Very few of them can back them up with real, genuine, peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The reason is that almost all of them, even the ones relating to products with some benefits, like Moringa, are bogus.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Weekend Post - Aiming for the stars

As a child, the biggest thing that sparked my interest in science was space travel. I was born in the mid-1960s and the first manned Moon landing was just two days after my fifth birthday. One of my first memories is seeing grainy black and white TV footage of men in spacesuits clomping around on the Moon’s surface, playing golf, driving rovers around and collecting rocks.

What impressed me just as much as the science was the engineering. Watching a Saturn V rocket launch is still an astonishing sight, even though you can only now see it on YouTube. This rocket remains, 40 years later, and at nearly 3,000 tons, the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched.

As a result of this I, like millions of others, became a fairly traditional space and astronomy-obsessed kid, forever getting science books for Christmas and birthdays and watching whatever TV shows I could find on the subject.

That’s probably the biggest single achievement of the entire American space program. I admit that they reached space and the moon, I admit that they placed satellites around the planet and I admit that they put the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest technological achievements of the last century, up there. But what I think was even more important was the way the whole program inspired people to be interested in science. Throughout the world you’ll find people of my generation who studied science because of the example the space program gave us. With a little luck we’ve been able to pass that inspiration on to our children and to theirs as well.

The good news these days is that the media, particularly international TV, is full of programs that discuss and educate people about science. They cover everything from A to Z, from astronomy to zoology.

The problem is that for every program dispensing scientific knowledge there seems to be another spouting hogwash. Whether it’s American nutcases chasing Bigfoot, alternative health fanatics selling bogus cures or fraudulent psychic “detectives”, they’re all promoting ignorance, superstition and fraud.

Unfortunately much of the excitement has been lost from space exploration in recent decades. With the exception of two tragedies with the Space Shuttle program, much of space exploration became rather routine, perhaps even dull. It also coincided with the growing realization that space exploration was an incredibly hazardous endeavor. Human beings really aren’t meant to be in space. We haven’t evolved to cope with the vacuum, the incredible heat and incredible cold, the blistering radiation and the distances involved. The depressing truth is that humanity is highly unlikely ever to venture very far from Earth, the scale of the challenge is so immense.

Of course you can get a sense of that original excitement from missions like the recent mission to Mars. Right now, as you read this, a robotic vehicle called Curiosity is exploring Mars, zapping rocks with it’s laser, measuring and photographing everything it encounters. It’s magnificent but we have to admit that it’s not quite the exciting as the space program of the 60s and early 70s.

Image c/o NASA
I was prompted to remember those days of space exploration by the recent death of Neil Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission and the first human to walk on the Moon. Unlike so many so-called contemporary celebrities Armstrong was a shy, retiring man who never sought fame. He seemed content just to have contributed towards a great human achievement. In one obituary of him he was quoted as saying:
"I think we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It's by the nature of his deep inner soul... we're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream."
That comment is a perfect epitaph for a good man, someone who represented progress for those of my generation. Armstrong and the rest of the space program were great examples of human nature, of the desire to explore and face challenges. But that’s gone now. The challenge for the scientific community is to come up with a new topic that inspires the next generation. It might be new forms of nuclear power production, the fight against global warming or the next evolution in agriculture.

Whatever it might be it’s essential that it inspires kids to take an interest in the only thing that can save humanity from itself. Science.